Based upon the song The Triangle Fire by The Brandos
The Triangle Fire
By Mike Stevens
Kate O’Doul was excited. It was her first day at The Triangle Shirt Factory; she had everything she’d dreamed when she’s left Donegal, Ireland for her new life in America. A new start, and a new husband-to-be, Michael O’Toole. The thought of going from Kate O’Doul, to Kate O’Toole brought a smile to her face. She walked into the building which housed the Triangle Shirt Factory, and climbed the stairway up, all the way up to The Triangle. She was dismayed at the conditions she saw upon opening the door. Overhead lights barely chased away the shadows, the air was un-air conditioned, and the girls toiling making shirts all looked miserable. She shyly approached the reception desk. A bookish woman looked up from whatever she was doing on her desk, and said,
“Can I help you?”
“Yes, I’m reporting for work.”
Immediately, the smile disappeared from the woman’s face, and she pointed towards a man who stood scowling at a group of women, who we busy at sewing machines, and putting finished shirts in boxes.
“See Mr. Carstens, he’ll show you what to do”.
Kate asked, “Him?” pointing.
Kate was immediately taken aback. Why was the woman being so unfriendly? “Thank you,” she answered the woman, who had already focused her attention on the papers on the desk in front of her. She walked over to Mr. Carstens, and said,
“Mr Carstens? I’m supposed to see you. I’m a new employee here.”
The man turned his cynical eyes towards her, looked her up and down, shook his head, like he was somehow disappointed with her, looked at his watch, and replied, “Cutting it kind of close, aren’t you? Shift starts at 9, and it’s 8.58, and I still have to show you what’s what.”
Kate was again shocked at the unfriendliness of the people in charge here. “Yes sir, I’m sorry, sir.”
He sniffed indifferently, and returned, “Oh well, never mind. See those boxes? When the girls finish with a shirt, they’ll set it on that table. It’s your job to fold it, and place it in one of those boxes. Each box will hold exactly 25 shirts, and I expect exactly that many shirts in each box; that’s assuming you can count that high."
Whoa! real friendly. “Yes, of course I can count that high.”
“Well, with you immigrant girls, god only know if you’ve had any formal education.”
“Well, I graduated from high school, if that helps.”
Carstens continued on, as if she hadn’t spoken. “Break at 10 and 2. No unauthorized breaks, so I’d better see you working. Lunch is from 12 to 12.30 pm, sharp, and I do mean sharp. When the buzzer sounds, it’s officially lunch time, and when it sounds again, lunch is over; some girls try to stretch out lunch, but let me tell you something; you won’t be working here long if I don’t see you right back here working soon after the last buzzer.”
She had somehow survived her first day at Triangle, and was staggering off the trolley. She was weary to her core, and already dreading tomorrow.
Two years had passed, and Kate was as beaten down and disillusioned by the gloomy reality of her situation as the other girls. Kate was now Mrs. Kate O’Toole, thanks to her wedding to Michael O’Toole, but little else about her life had changed. 1911 was almost 3 months old, and she had ceased to notice, or care; she’d retreated behind an outer shell of indifference, and time had ceased to make any difference to her. Every day brought fresh misery.
Michael O’Toole was taking a break from his job as a bricklayer, which he hated with a passion. This wasn't exactly what he'd envisioned when he'd landed on these shores; after all, wasn't this the land of opportunity? So far, it wasn't much different from the land he'd left behind. He was standing out front of the building they were working on, when he overheard a conversation between two guys on the sidewalk out front; hearing one guy in a derby hat say to his companion,
“I just came from downtown, and there’s big fire at The Triangle Shirt Factory; every fire department for miles around is sending...”
Michael didn’t hear the rest of the conversation. Cold dread washed over him; Kate! He immediately broke into a run, as The Triangle Shirt Factory building wasn’t too many blocks away.
Kate O’Toole sat toiling in misery, wishing the day was over, when she heard a commotion behind her. She risked facing the wrath of Mr. Carstens, stopped working, and looked for the source of the disturbance. Colleen Kennedy was screaming something, but was so excited, her words were unintelligible.
“Calm down, Colleen,” someone said, “now, what’s the problem?”
“Fire! Fire!” Just as she said this, the unmistakable smell of smoke filled the air. Kate stood up quickly and raced for the door. When she reached it, and tried to open it, it wouldn’t budge. It was locked! Screams of panic filled the air, as others realized they were trapped. Kate tried to keep herself calm, but the panic wouldn’t be denied. Desperately, she looked for another possible escape route, but with the doors being locked, there was no other way out. The flames were very visible now, and acrid, choking black smoke made breathing all-but impossible. Oh god, she wouldn’t be burned to death; anything was preferable to that! She wanted out, but the only way out was the fire escape. She ran towards the fire escape, but their were so many people with the same idea, the weight had damaged the runners, or something, because it was unusable. Down on the street, she could see fireman pointing towards her, and full-fledged panic engulfed her, much like the hungry flames advancing steadily towards her wanted to do. Out of the corner of her eye, she watched a girl, her dress burning, break the glass of a window, and screaming in total terror, launch herself out the shattered window. Kate glanced back out her window, and came to a deadly decision; the woman who’d jumped wasn’t going to let the flames get her, and Kate came to the same conclusion. Better to jump than burn to death. She thought in crushing sadness of all her dreams, which she would now never see. She couln't believe it was all going to end this way, but she grabbed a chair and hurled it through the window. The sound of breaking glass was almost as loud as the terrible hissing of the flames, as they steadily advanced on her. If she was going to go, now was the time.
Michael O’Toole came around a corner, and witnessed Dante’s Inferno. The building which housed The Triangle Shirt Factory was engulfed in flames. Black smoke and orange flames poured out of every window of the upper floors. The firemen could do nothing, as their ladders failed to even come close to the floors where they were needed. Michael could hear several firemen yelling at a white-clad woman who had emerged from the hell behind her, and was poised on the window ledge.
“Don’t jump!” the firemen all screamed, but the woman in white stepped off the window ledge, and plummeted downward past all the stories, until she struck the pavement, with a sickening sound.
Michael was horrified!
Michael could only seek justice for Kate; who was one of 146 people who had died needlessly on that March 25th day. Michael was eager to hear the truth about what had happened. So far, The bosses of The Triangle Shirt Factory were not admitting to any wrongdoing. Tragic, unavoidable accident, was all they’d say. The prosecuting attorney, however, would not accept their pleas of innocence.
“So, is it your testimony that no one is to blame?”
“That is correct,” answered a suave-looking gentleman in an expensive suit.
“Well, I don’t believe you, sir!” answered the prosecutor.
On and on, the denials of liability went, until all-at-once, the man being questioned, replied to a question from the prosecutor,
“Okay, I can’t lie anymore; we locked the doors from the outside; we wanted everybody working, and as theft was a problem, the best way to achieve both of those things was by locking the doors.”
The verdict was in, and Michael just knew that justice was at hand for Kate. It was too late to save her, but if her death prevented something like this from happening again, at least that was something.
“Has the jury reached a verdict?”
“We have, your honor.”
“What say you, are the defendants guilty or not guilty of any causing the deaths of 146 people?”
The jury foremen, a taciturn-looking man in a button-down suit, said, “We the jury find both owners not guilty!”
Bedlam erupted all around Michael O’Toole, but he was oblivious. He must not have heard correctly; not guilty? They had locked the employees in! How much more guilty could they be?
Several weeks had gone by since the owners of The Triangle Shirt Factory had been found not guilty of any wrongdoing in the deaths of 146 people, one of which was Michael O’Toole’s wife, Kate. As near as Michael could determine, the not guilty verdict had to do with the owners not being personally aware that the doors had been locked. Just another example of the rich being able to buy their way out of trouble; some things will never change!
© Copyright 2016 Mike Stevens. All rights reserved.